Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
August 3, 2001
Lev Manovich The Language of New Media Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, 2001. 354 pp. Cloth $34.95 (0262133741)

Given this book’s title, it bears asking what comprises the new media? Lev Manovich enumerates them early on: “Web sites, virtual worlds, virtual reality (VR), multimedia, computer games, interactive installations, computer animation, digital video, cinema, and human-computer interfaces” (8-9). What, then, is the new media’s “language”? By language, Manovich intends both the diverse conventions used by new-media practitioners to organize data and structure the user’s experience, and the various discourses that surround the new media. Grounded in an analysis of the ways in which new media have appropriated the forms and conventions of older art and communications media, Manovich’s central concern, and that of his book’s first five chapters, is the influence of cinema’s language on the new media; the final chapter examines the inverse. (The link to cinema should not be overstated however, as Manovich never fails to include other relevant precedents ranging from Renaissance oil painting to Marey’s photographic gun to WWII radar technology.) Each chapter concludes with compelling case studies that serve to define and elaborate the theories advanced.

The contribution this remarkable book makes to the existing literature on new media and related topics is a product of the author’s wide-ranging expertise and intellectual rigor; Manovich holds advanced degrees in cognitive psychology and visual culture and has been working with computer media for almost twenty years as an artist, designer, animator, computer programmer, and teacher. In assessing “new media objects” (his term), their technologies, and their style, Manovich is always mindful of how social, economic, and cultural considerations inform and are informed by the very technologies and styles that they consider. Manovich studiously avoids ahistorical generalizations by asking what is different between more recent technologies and those preceding them; fortunately he does not hesitate to frequently conclude with “not much.”

Interactivity has been a tortured term and concept in critical theorizations of new media. Manovich encapsulates the problematic: “when we use the concept of ‘interactive media’ exclusively in relation to computer-based media, there is the danger that we will interpret ‘interaction’ literally, equating it with physical interaction between a user and a media object (pressing a button, choosing a link, moving the body), at the expense of [the] psychological interaction…required for us to comprehend any text or image at all” (57). While this formulation may appear to be common sense, the current use of the term interactivity does seem to privilege the physical over the psychological. It is more important to note how the two are necessarily intertwined in our epistemological encounter with new media objects. Manovich nevertheless hopes to preserve the term, helpfully and convincingly distinguishing between “open” and “closed” interactivity (40).

If adopted, Manovich’s careful and precise terminology could allow for more rigorous discussions of interactivity. The author’s description of the “human computer interface” (HCI) is likewise a much-needed clarification of the user’s relationship to new media objects. The term human computer interface describes the ways in which the user interacts with the computer; Manovich builds from this notion to include the input and output devices used in the interaction, the metaphors used to conceptualize the organization of computer data, and the ways of manipulating that data (69). This expanded notion of the HCI is significant in that it foregrounds the importance of the distressingly undertheorized point of reception that distinguishes our encounter with new media objects.

By now, the truisms of our digital age seem unshakeable. How often have we heard (or hoped) that digital representations are unable to offer the complexity of analogue ones? Or that digital image and sound files are able to be reproduced ad infinium as indistinguishable and perfect duplicates? Manovich is quick to point out that both of these conceptions are true in theory but unlikely in practice. The resolution available in pixel-based digital images is already more detailed than that of any traditional photograph. Furthermore, the routine compression of digital audio-visual files (lossy compression) means that details are edited out to save space so that copies are routinely degraded in practice. It is all too often overlooked in the digital discourse (both utopic and dystopic strands) that digital images as they are used today do not constitute a radical break from the current technologies of vision and the Cartesian space of Renaissance painting.

The Language of New Media meaningfully links the computer industry’s obsession with illusionism, the trend toward increasingly realistic representations in computer imaging, to a similar trend in painting and photography of the same era—roughly the late 1970s to early 1980s. Photography’s nineteenth-century intrusion into painting’s traditional duty of documenting reality served to reinvigorate painting by relieving it from the burden of representation. Although it is too soon to know what film, photography or painting’s futures will be in the face of increasing computer illusionism, Manovich urges his reader to recognize that synthetic computer-generated imagery offers a different, not a contradictory, reality.

The history of the quest for “realism” in the case of new media is a quest for a cinematographic or photographic realism, a realism already highly defined by our modern experience of living with the cultural forms offered by the camera as reality. Manovich elucidates: “What computer graphics have (almost) achieved is not realism, but rather only photorealism—the ability not to fake our perceptual and bodily experience of reality but only its photographic image” (200). Put another way, the only reason we can say (or fear) that images of reality can be simulated is that we accept photography and film as reality.

These observations become slightly more disturbing when grounded in practical examples. The Language of New Media clearly documents how the twofold interests of the Pentagon and Hollywood have historically set the standards for developing certain aspects of computer-imaging realism over others, sponsoring efforts to perfect representations of landscapes and moving figures. Of course, new-media “realism,” like those attempts preceding it, is partial and uneven; what Manovich provokes us to question is who is setting the terms for what gets prioritized as “reality.” The much-lauded freedom to create our own personal worlds with new media, whether on our computer desktops or in our experiences of virtual reality, is in fact radically limited by predefined alternatives.

It has become commonplace to note that the viewer has developed into an interactive user with the advent of new media and Manovich is careful to take this into account. He also notes that “as we work with software and use the operations embedded in it, these operations become part of how we understand ourselves, others, and the world” (118). With this understanding, Manovich designates teleaction, the ability of the user to change reality from a distance in real time, a true paradigm shift (169). What is missing from Manovich’s otherwise meticulous account is a consideration of the computer itself as active. The author constructs his argument as if “control” is always the prerogative of the subject and fails to consider the consequences of the computer or other new-media devices acting on us. What are the real effects when the HCI serves as a surveillance mechanism or employs teleaction to affect real situations in real time? The propensity of commercial websites to track the visitors’ subsequent movements only hints at the possibility of new-media surveillance in what Gilles Deleuze has called our “society of control.”

Manovich’s interpretation of how ideology functions in the era of new media is provocative; the author reasons that by having to periodically take an active role and participate in the interactive text in order to complete it, the subject is interpolated in it. The self-critique, disbelief, and “revelation of the machinery” that used to function as oppositional strategies are now expected, tolerated, and consequently emptied of their critical capacity in interactive media just as they are in other social realms from politics to advertising. Theorized by Manovich, the contemporary subject is far from naïve and knowingly “invests in the illusion precisely because she is given control over it” (209). This formulation is a complex and useful way to consider contemporary new-media objects and their discourses while retaining a historical specificity and critical context.

Throughout The Language of New Media, Manovich calls for the aestheticizing of information processing, although it is not entirely clear what this means for art as opposed to design. Distinguishing new-media design from new-media art, Manovich ventures a definition of the latter: “the choice of a particular interface is motivated by a work’s content to such a degree that it can no longer be thought of as a separate level” (67). The fields of art and design are merged, however, as Manovich posits that the database should be considered a symbolic cultural form of its own (219). Throughout Chapter 5, “The Forms,” Manovich encourages the designers of databases and “navigable spaces” to learn from the histories of modern architecture (built and paper), modern art, and installation. Whether or not this call is intended to inspire artists, software designers, or both is not in the end as important as why Manovich (or the rest of us) feel compelled to distinguish between the two in the first place.

Overall, it is hard to overestimate the importance of The Language of New Media to the field of the same name as it is the first rigorous and far-reaching theorization of the subject. Readers from expert to novice will almost certainly be thankful for Manovich’s studious attention to definitions, both those commonly (mis)used and those coined by the author. The Language of New Media is required reading not only for those concerned with the discourses surrounding new media, but also for anyone critically engaged with contemporary art and culture.

Katie Mondloch
Ph.D, candidate in art history, Department of Art History, University of California, Los Angeles